The role of mentorship in this time of remote work is perhaps more important than ever before. With this in mind, Payette’s Young Designers Core (YDC) and Women in Design group (WiD) teamed up to establish “Payette Connect,” a series of virtual lunch events, meet ups and resource sharing to address the challenges of mentorship and development of mentor/mentee relationships during the pandemic. Alison Laas kicks off this initiative and shares her thoughts in the first of an upcoming series of blog posts.
In preparing for my return to a new remote work environment after my maternity leave this September, I reached out to a number colleagues and friends I consider mentors. Because I have strong mentee habits with a well-established network of mentors, it felt natural to simply use the new virtual tools that are essential components for communicating in the remote work environment to connect with people I already have mentor/mentee relationships with. It probably took a little bit longer to connect with all of my mentors, as well as all the people they recommended I speak with to navigate my transition back to work, than if we had all simply been sitting in our office together. But overall I feel that my transition was smoothed and supported by all of my colleagues who I consider mentors, regardless of how we connected.
At the same time, I began to think how I might have felt if I had returned to the office without this support network. What if I didn’t feel like I could just give certain people a call on the phone whenever I needed or set up a calendar invite for a video chat without having to preface that communication with some other kind of introduction?
Making new connections and building a mentor network in a virtual environment can feel more challenging than it might in a normal, in-person work environment. Despite this, many programs have proven that virtual mentoring can be as successful as in-person efforts if there is a strong framework set up to help mentors and mentees succeed. Working remotely will be the norm for the foreseeable future, and Payette is excited to be developing an in-house virtual mentoring initiative called Payette Connect.
In preparation for the launch of our initiative, I found the article “Social Distancing Doesn’t Have to Disrupt Mentorship” by David G. Smith and W. Brad Johnson for the Harvard Business Review, which provided some of the most concrete guidance on virtual mentoring during the pandemic. The key point of the article is that mentorship, an essential part of ensuring the health of any organization, engaging and retaining talent, and growing leadership, is even more critical in times of transition, uncertainty, and added stress that we are all experiencing now.
The authors’ tips for mentors in a time of social distancing are valuable on their own and I have reflected on how each of them has been reflected in my own mentoring experiences over the past several months:
Communicate with your mentees, but don’t assume you understand their situations
The shift to remote working conditions and the social distancing measures that have been put in place to keep as many people as possible safe and healthy during the pandemic have been difficult for everyone – but difficult in incredibly individual ways. For me, being on parental leave through the beginning of our office’s transition to work from home meant that I was disconnected from the new rhythms of communication and networking that were being established by project teams and firm leadership. When returning to work I immediately reached out to one of my mentors who I know is well connected to many teams and leaders in the office for advice on how to navigate the new normal. Her connectedness made her a good resource for pointing me to others I should talk to about new opportunities that might be available both for project work and for promoting communication and mentoring. What I learned was that connectedness also meant that my mentor’s workload was incredibly intense because so many people were relying on her to support them. She was generous in her time to connect with me, but as her mentee I also knew to be respectful of her time and to reach out to others on my own.
Make adjustments to established norms
In an office like Payette where in-person, informal mentoring is more of the norm, figuring out how to support each other virtually can be challenging. Mentors who rely on their mentees regularly reaching out may miss opportunities to provide support to mentees who are also struggling to adjust to new work and home conditions. Similarly, mentees who are used to having informal interactions with their mentors over everyday design and work discussions might feel intimidated to make requests for scheduled conversations. Because of my family’s childcare needs, I have limited hours that I can connect with my team virtually during the day but can be flexible within my available hours to connect with colleagues and team members. The most important thing to remember is that any kind of connection and support is likely to be welcomed by both mentors and mentees, and the most important first step is to actually communicate, not matter what form of communication you decide is most comfortable for you.
Be Authentic and Welcome Reciprocity
My experience with mentoring has always been one of multi-level, multi-source mentoring. I have never felt that I was limited to a single mentor, and I have benefited from both peer and more traditional mentoring relationships. Because I have a strong network of many different kinds of mentors, I felt comfortable getting many perspectives and reaching out to multiple colleagues even before I returned to remote work from my parental leave to discuss the trepidation I was feeling about returning to a new type of work environment. For me, my peer mentoring relationships are some of my strongest because I feel that I can easily reciprocate to colleagues who are in similar places in their careers and personal lives.
As the authors of the article point out, we typically focus on the career functions and benefits of mentoring, but right now the personal, psychological and emotional aspects of mentoring relationships are perhaps even more important. In one of the conversations I had with a mentor about some of my anxiety about returning to work, the best response I received was to do what felt right to me. The validation of my instincts was more meaningful and gave me more confidence than any strictly professional advice could have provided.
Address concerns through coping and mastery skills
One of the most important benefits in my strong network of mentors is the connections they can make to their own networks. Similarly, one of the most important skills I have developed as a mentee is reaching out to those connections once I have been pointed in the right direction. I have taken the current situation of everyone learning to navigate working together remotely to make new connections with colleagues and strengthen my office network. As much as we need support from our mentors in these uncertain times, we also need to be proactive as mentees to seek out the connections we need.
Have you had success in translating an in-person mentoring relationship into a remote/socially distanced/virtual environment? Share with us in the comments what is working for you and your mentees/mentors!